According to Sun Tzu, “there has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited.”1 Under the impression of protracted high-intensity conflicts (HICs) such as World War I, the 1969-70 Egyptian-Israeli war of attrition, and the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, in which the gradual exhaustion of moral and material resources was the most prominent characteristic, attrition has been associated in the West with a Goliath-type bloody and ineffective confrontation that is best avoided. Post-World War II attrition-dominated, low-intensity conflicts (LICs) have also earned highly negative connotations on the side of the stronger opponent. Engaged in such conflicts, the strong side often faced difficulty in translating its military power into political gains, which only strengthened the negative image of wars of attrition. The aforesaid does not, however, change the fact that attrition has played a major role in modern and post-modern war, and thus deserves to be treated more respectfully by both theorists and practitioners. In this chapter, I will put forth the following main arguments. First, wars of attrition are not necessarily less sophisticated than blitzkrieg and can, to a great extent, be considered even more modern than blitzkrieg. Second, wars of attrition have adapted quite flexibly to the changes in the nature of war, adjusting their form over the course of the years. Generally, wars of attrition have receded from the actual battlefield and have been transplanted to the civilian rear. They have become a combination of military engagements at the tactical level and confrontation at the grand-strategic level. Third, although attrition as a strategy typically seems tailor-made to suit the limitations of the side that is militarily and technologically weaker, Western democracies have in recent years demonstrated greater sustainability in wars of attrition thanks to their ability to conduct them “post-heroically,” i.e., with minimum casualties both among one’s own troops and civilians and enemy civilians, thereby easing domestic and external legitimacy pressures, which is particularly valuable in cases where the stakes involved are not sufficiently high. Attrition as a strategy has also become more offensive than defensive. Fourth, wars of attrition may also develop by themselves. This may happen as a result of the creation of a state of symmetry in capabilities between the parties due to operational or technological reasons; a state of asymmetry in destructive
capability balanced by asymmetry in cost tolerance; or the existence of political constraints, which limit the military’s freedom of action. Fifth, battlefield decision is usually restricted to the tactical level. It is usually outside the actual battlefield, at the grand-strategic level, where wars of attrition are won. In the ensuing pages I will discuss the meaning of attrition as opposed to blitzkrieg; types and characteristics of wars of attrition; attrition as a chosen strategy and as a phenomenon that develops by itself; problems entailed in waging and winning wars of attrition; and the unique challenges faced by Western democracies engaged in such wars and their preferred way of conducting them. Most of the illustrations presented in this chapter are from the modern and post-modern periods. However, as resorting to attrition was highly popular with strategists during ancient times, and as ancient thinking and practice has inspired modern strategic thinking, I will permit myself to accompany modern illustrations with references to ancient ones, as well.